Yin and Yang

January 29, 2007 10:47pm CST
This post was inspired by a book I read recently called Understanding Vietnam by Neil L. Jamieson. It's a history of Vietnam told through a consideration of literary output over the last few hundred years. The American, Jamieson, is particularly concerned that his country has been involved in an ongoing dispute with an eastern civilisation that it does not comprehend. To explain this enigma Jamieson considers Vietnam through the prism of Yin and Yang. Yang reflects the structured, heirachical, masculine, and orthodox aspects of society. Yin reflects the more plural, egalitarian, feminine, and reformist elements. For example, a young girl who struggles to choose her own marriage partner represents the Yin in Viet society, while the orthodoxy of the existing family structure represents the Yang. It's a seductive analysis because it was developed by the Vietnamese themselves. It is their own lens through which they view the world. And yet it struggles to accomodate recent Indochinese history. It seems plausible that traditional Vietnamese leadership could be Yang, but were the French invaders Yin? Did Nixon's killing machine reflect a commitment to egalitarianism? Were Ho Chi Minh and his communist revolutionaries feminine? Yin and Yang is too generic in its analysis to explain any society, let alone one as functionally complex as Vietnam. The analysis gets twisted and distorted in response to investigation, and ultimately becomes meaningless. How then do we analyse the dynamic of our own societies, those of our neighbours, and those of the emerging world? Do we embrace Marx's principles of class struggle, an east-versus-west dichotomy, the far-right's 'law of the jungle'? Or do we collapse into a kind of postmodern intellectual abyss?
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